Nearly 400,000 children, mostly girls between seven and 14 years of age, toil for 14-16 hours a day in cottonseed production across the country. In Andhra Pradesh (AP), which accounts for 60 per cent of the hybrid cottonseed production, girls (mostly from the lower caste) earn about Rs 20 (1US$=Rs 45) per day; sleep in cowsheds or makeshift camps; and are constantly exposed to poisonous pesticides like endosulfan.
The number of children involved in the three hybrid cottonseed producing districts of AP - Kurnool, Mahboobnagar and Rangareddy - is more than the total number of children working in industries like glass bangle making, limestone quarrying, carpet weaving and gem polishing in India.
Dr Davuluri Venkateswarlu's study, 'Seeds of Bondage' (2000), states that hybrid cottonseed production in India began in the 1970s. The state government gave the parent seeds to private companies, who multiplied them and sold them under various brand names. Most of the labor in the fields was done by adults. But by the mid-1990s, several MNCs entered the cottonseed production market. And because they offered very low returns to the farmers, the latter were forced to seek underpaid child labor.
Hybrid cottonseed production is more labor intensive and capital intensive. Seeds have to be replaced every year. Also, unlike hybrid seeds like paddy and millet, in cottonseed, cross-pollination (which lasts for four months) has to be done manually. Each individual flower has to be emasculated and pollinated by hand, by a large labor force. In AP, it is mostly girls who do this kind of labor.
The exploitation of girls has also been legitimized by perpetuating myths such as this one: cotton plants wither if touched by adults, and thus girls who haven't attained puberty are ideal for the job. Actually, farmers admit, girls are preferred because they are easy to manipulate. They can be cajoled into working for long hours with cheap incentives like biscuits, ribbons and bindis (decorative dot on the forehead).
One girl does the work of three adults. "For Rs 10, they do work worth Rs 100 for us!" comments a farmer from AP. A child earns 30 per cent less than a woman and 55 per cent less than a man does.
Although the MNCs don't directly employ children - they work through farmers called seed organizers - they have a stranglehold over all aspects of farming. MNCs supply the foundation seed for generating the new crop, they advance capital, ensure quality supervision, and fix the buyback seed prices.
Shantha Sinha, Magsaysay award winner and Secretary Trustee of the Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation (MVF), an NGO, says more than half the children working in cottonseed production are employed by about 10 MNCs or their Indian subsidiaries, while the rest work for the AP-based Nuzveed Seed Industry. MVF has been working in AP for over a decade to eliminate all forms of child labor and ensure that every child goes to school.
Some of the prominent MNCs involved are - Hindustan Lever Limited (a subsidiary of Unilever), Mahyco (Monsanto's subsidiary), Proagro Seed Company (subsidiary of Bayer), Emergent Genetics and Syngenta and Advanta.
The MNCs finalize contracts with seed organizers in March/April. The seed organizers pay an advance of Rs 1,500 to a child's family. In effect, the children are like bonded labor - they stay away from their families in cowsheds and camps (10-30 children in one camp) and can be summoned for work at any time by the farmers.
The cotton sowing season starts in May/June and the crop is usually harvested the following February. According to estimates, in 2003, 250,000 children worked in AP's cottonseed fields during the peak season (May-July). Sinha informs that during peak season, children are brought in truckloads from neighboring villages. Even schoolchildren are not spared: the dropout rate soars to 62 per cent in many schools.
Apart from inhuman working conditions, the children are also exposed to pesticide poisoning. Sprays and fertilizers inhaled by the children lead to vomiting, loss of appetite, giddiness, headaches, skin allergies and respiratory and menstrual problems. In one case, a teenage girl died because of inhaling toxic pesticides. "The children are not allowed to seek medical aid unless they are practically dying and it's an emergency. Children are exploited from both sides - by parents and employers. The one-year cycle is habit forming, leading to repeated employment," says Sinha.
In recent years, MVF and international organizations like the International Labour Organization, Global March, and UNICEF have been working to raise awareness about the social responsibility of MNCs. Child labor is a violation of the Minimum Wages Protection Act, the Abolition of Bonded Labour Act, as well as child rights.
After repeated meetings and discussions during 2002, the MNCs promised to prepare a concrete proposal by October 2003 towards the elimination of child labor in cottonseed production. They had also promised to enhance the contract amount of the farmers to enable them to employ adults. In February 2004, MVF and the seed industry held a meeting in Kurnool and decided to form a Joint Monitoring Committee at the ground level.
Believing that pressure from the ground level and community mobilization is crucial to the issue, MVF plans to mobilize gram panchayats (village councils), sarpanches (village council heads), child rights protection committees as well as state government officials. The reduced incidence of child labor in the districts of Dhone, Midthur, and Peapilly - mainly due to community support - has proved that this is possible.
Sinha points out that the MNCs dictate all the terms in cottonseed farming but hesitate to take punitive action because they fear that farmers will sell their patented seeds in the open market.
Raman Modi, General Manager, Supply Chain Program, Proagro Seed Company, claims that this season they plan to distribute the foundation seed in jute bags, emblazoned with anti-child labor slogans. Village committees will conduct spot checks and identify violators. He declares that seeds will be given only after farmers sign an agreement saying they will not hire child labor. However, when asked what action they will take against violators, he said that was not the company's responsibility; they will communicate all violations to MVF and the government.
B Ramakrishna Reddy, General Manager, Production and Operations, Emergent Genetics, is confident that child labor would be reduced by 90 per cent in 2004. He says they have told farmers that they will not issue any seeds till they agree not to employ children.
Venkat Reddy, Coordinator, MVF, dismisses the MNCs' claims of enforcing anti-child labor norms this season. They have two faces, he says; they present a compliant side to their parent companies, while at the ground level children have already been contracted, with advances paid to parents. In fact, in their reports to parent companies, the MNCs cite the presence of MVF at anti-child labor meetings as "proof" that they are complying with the norms.
To make the MNCs more accountable, MVF plans to collect data on child labor from May 2004 onwards, when the children enter the fields, and confront both farmers and MNCs with hard facts.